Detroit’s Protomartyr are in a creative golden age right now. The post-punk quartet’s 2017 album Relatives In Descent featured highly in numerous album-of-the-year lists, with a gradual increase in ambition and confidence underpinning everything they create. This year they released the Consolation EP featuring two collaborations with the legendary Kelley Deal, marking yet another great release in their cannon. One of the most immediately noticeable elements of their sound is the distinct vocal style of frontman Joe Casey. His half spoken, half sung passionate vocal delivery draws attention to his scholarly lyrics which draw inspiration from everything from politics to philosophy. With this in mind, I was nervous when preparing for the interview, being the relative luddite that I am. This is a man so well read that most of the time I don’t even know the people being referenced, let alone have anything meaningful to add to it. I feared that there’d be an awkwardness at my naivety that we wouldn’t be able to get past. Instead I encountered an incredibly warm, friendly and soft-spoken man who seemed genuinely happy to talk about anything and everything. As we sat down backstage at Nijmegen’s Doornroosje, his politeness set me at ease from the very beginning.
How are you today Joe?
Oh, pretty good, yeah. We had the day off yesterday so we came in last night.
Oh yeah? Where were you, you were in Germany, right?
Yeah, Bremen and then a day off and then here (Nijmegen) tonight.
Do you make the most of your days off?
I wish we could go on to places of interest, like to museums and things, but a lot of times you kind of sleep in and we went to go see a movie last night, just relaxing.
What did you go see?
A movie called Under The Silver Lake, it wasn’t very good. The director is from Michigan, which is where we’re from. This was his second, overindulgent movie.
Oh ok, so the first was good?
He did one called It Follows which was a horror movie that takes place in Detroit, that’s pretty good.
Do you get that thing where you end up getting distracted watching the film because you recognise some of the places?
Oh yeah. Our first time we toured Europe we played Munich and the show was cancelled from lack of interest so we went to go see Transformers and there’s a scene where there are these giant robots fighting in front of our old practice space and we’re like “there’s our practice space!”.
Haha, you’re like “I hope it doesn’t get damaged and we can get in there next time!”
Yeah, “Oh no it’s being destroyed by robots!”.
You guys have been on tour so much in the last year, just a bit of a gap over Christmas and January.
Yup, that was about it, we had like two months off and it’s pretty much been non-stop since the last record came out.
How do you find that? It’s got to be quite a strain on you.
It always ebbs and flows. My mistake is that I always get too drunk during the first show and then I’m hungover. Then around the middle of the tour you’re on cruise control, and then depending on how long the tour is, you get used to it. When we go back home, we don’t have day jobs so there’s really nothing to do. You get a little stir crazy and want to get back on the road.
Do you find yourself writing on tour or do you prefer to have that time of just shutting things off?
We can’t really write new songs on the road at all. The idea is that once this tour is done that we go back into the practice space and start working on new stuff.
What about your vocals and lyrics? When you’re writing, how independent is that of the rest of the music when you’re actually creating songs?
It’s very independent, especially for the last record. The first couple of records we would all be in the same room where they’re coming up with riffs and ideas. One thing I found is that I would hear them work on a song and they’d record it on a phone then I’d listen to it and come up with ideas for lyrics and stuff and we’d go in the next day only to find that they’re like “No, we didn’t really like that one” so I’d get really frustrated. Now what happens is that I avoid that part where they’re coming up with the music and then I only hear the stuff that they really like. Then I can be like “Oh, I don’t like this one. I like that one”. I avoid being frustrated because they’ve already worked on it for a long time. Alex now lives in New York. Greg is already working out his guitar parts and he’s played some for Alex and he’s played a little bit for me to prove “Hey, I’m working!”. I’ll hear it not when it’s a complete song, but when it’s a complete idea.
If you’re getting the track when it’s relatively complete, do you then have the power to veto things? Like say that the drum beat’s too intense.
Sometimes, but usually I like the challenge. They’ve obviously thought “Well Joe’s going to have to sing over this” but I like the challenge of trying to fit my vocals into it because we don’t fall into a pattern of “this is obviously the verse, this is obviously the chorus”. I have to figure out where the chorus is, and since I don’t know where choruses are supposed to go sometimes they come up in weird spots. There’s a song on the Consolidation EP called Wait which for a long time I was like “It’s a great song, but there’s no way I can sing over it” and then after struggling with it for a long time I was like “I’ll, uh, do this. I won’t worry” and I was able to kind of make it fit.
That’s interesting, because Wait to me sounds like one of the hookiest tracks, especially as far as the chorus goes.
Right, it has a chorus! I just had to figure out what it was. I never want to sing too much, or I’m trying to figure out where I fit in between the guitar and if the bass is doing something crazy then I’ve got a low voice so I don’t want to compete. It’s a weird process I go through trying to work out what fits and what doesn’t.
I can imagine. I remember first hearing A Private Understanding and thinking “Imagine trying to write a vocal line that would fit over that”.
The good thing about that was that Greg gave me a home demo of it and said “I’m thinking of something like this for the next album” one day before we started working on it. I was like “that sounds great!”. We didn’t end up working on it until the end of the writing the album, but I knew it was there so I could have enough time to work out how I was going to sing over that song.
OK, that makes sense. With the latest Consolation EP, am I right in understanding they were tracks that were from the Relatives In Descent sessions that never made it onto that record but were too good to waste?
Yeah. With Wheel Of Fortune, the music they came up with pretty early on and that sounded like a good centrepiece for an album. Then when we started coming up with other songs, we realised this song is a bit too big and unwieldly and will take up too much space. With some of the lyrics that I had for A Private Understanding I was like “Oh well, I can’t use it here, but I’ll take it into Wheel Of Fortune”. There were certain things that I wanted to talk about. It was a weird thing where in a way it would have been the centrepiece of the album but then it was too big. With A Private Understanding and Half-Sister it would be jacking for space too much so we decided to take it out. We didn’t even record it in those sessions, we saved it. We knew we wanted to do an EP because we had time between recording Relatives and going on tour and we were sitting around on our asses for months so we went back into the studio to record the ones that we didn’t record before.
I’m curious about Kelley Deal’s involvement on those tracks. Obviously she was on Blues Festival before, and she’s got quite a presence on this EP, particularly on the last track. But how did that come about?
We first met her at South By South West. The first year that we were there we were playing way too many shows, we played something like 14 shows in 3 days or something like that. It was a lot, and I wouldn’t suggest doing that. We were playing a Sub Pop stage and her band R.Ring was playing. We were up in the green room with all the bands and someone was knocking on the bathroom door from the inside saying “Hey, I’m locked in the bathroom!”. Greg lets her out and it’s Kelley Deal. That’s how we first met her and then we got to know her and Mike, who’s also in R.Ring and owns a studio in Kentucky. They say never meet your heroes, but she was a charming, interesting and down to earth person. She said “Oh, you guys are in Detroit? We’re right down in Ohio, you should come and record at Mike’s studio!”. It happened so easily and effortlessly for the first split. Then when we were going to record these four songs we had we thought, let’s go back and see if Kelley wants to sing and she was like “sure!”. Then after we finished and we’d already sent the record off she said “I actually had this part where I thought I could sing over Same Face in a Different Mirror” and we were like “Oh, oh, god damn it!”. She’s got all these great ideas and we want to try them but she’d often be like “No, I don’t want to do that” and she’d second guess herself. I think it’s mostly because she’s like “they’re you guys’ songs and I don’t want to screw up your songs” but we’re like “please, screw them up, that’s fine!”.
So you were quite open then. I did wonder because your music still has a very distinct construction as to the parts that everyone plays. Did it feel natural having someone come in from an outside perspective?
We haven’t really collaborated with anybody as closely as Kelley, but when we first started, we had a guitar player whose main band Tyvek was a big band in Detroit. It was almost like the same thing, having him come in and say “Hey, come play the show with us and we’re going to record this song if you want to put a guitar thing on it, whatever you want to do”. From the beginning we were used to having people come in. I always knew early on my voice would benefit from occasionally having a higher voice or a female voice counterpoint it or whatever the term is. Just because an hour of me droning on might be a bit much. Some light amongst all the shade might be kind of nice. Kelley Deal was someone whose records I had when I was in high school. I thought she was an unattainable star and then we’re sitting on her couch and we’re recording. That was one of those things that you don’t realise can actually happen.
Before being locked in the toilet was she familiar with your music?
No, not at all. She was like “Nice to meet you guys” and then later on she was like “Oh, you guys are the band who sounded like you were yelling at me the whole time, ha ha”. It wasn’t like she was “Oh you guys were amazing”, I think she just liked our personalities more and that we were easy going mid-western fellas.
It’s funny you mention that counterpoint, because I remember hearing Wheel Of Fortune for the first time and that moment where her voice harmonises with yours and I didn’t realise how powerful that combination could sound until I heard it.
And that was a late addition. She was singing at the end and then said “Oh, I just want to try this one thing” and immediately it punches the song up. We’re going to play it tonight and if you know the song it’ll be like “I wish Kelley’s voice could be there”.
But it’s a small thing.
Well it’s small, but for me it made the song.
Correct me if I got this wrong, but I heard in a previous interview that the refrain “She’s been trying to meet you” on A Private Understanding was originally a place holder of a lyric that eventually became the final incarnation. You mention that the band are now living in different locations and that you’re working on these tracks at a much more complete stage. Does that create a different song writing dynamic which leads to a different style altogether?
Yeah it does, and I hope we can do it more often, but when we started we could play shows and no-one would care and we could experiment and play a song that we’re working on live and I think that benefited some songs. Some have changed completely. There’s some radio thing somewhere where there’s a song where I’m singing lyrics over and we completely dumped the song except one guitar part and the lyrics I now use in a different song. I like doing that, but I wish I was more of a confident singer where I could almost change the way that I sing the songs from night to night just because I enjoy more improvisation. On our first album there are songs that still to this day don’t have lyrics. I just kind of mumble and make up things on that night and so if we ever re-release that record and I have to sing them again it’ll be hell trying to figure out what I was singing the first time.
I see what you mean, you haven’t even got a reference point. Is that why you don’t play much off the first album live?
Just because no-one really knows about it. We play it and someone will be like “Oh, that new song was good” and we’ll say “well that was one of the oldest ones” and we’ve been trying to re-release it or at least get it out. It’s amazing, since we’ve started, and we’re not that old a band, people have been like “Oh, you’ve got to put it on iTunes” and that album’s on iTunes but nobody knows about it and now it’s like “Oh, it’s not on Spotify” so it doesn’t exist. I mean, Spotify wasn’t around when we released that. I didn’t really realise how big Spotify or those streaming things are until then.
And how do you feel about streaming, and the way it’s dominating music consumption?
I wish that we were a more popular band so that we could self-release things and just make the money but we’re not so when you find out that your fans like listening to you on Spotify and that’s where they find your music then I guess I’ll just have to get fractions of a penny now, but at least it’s there. A friend of ours in a band is writing an article about why these massive conglomerates that own these companies make bands pay for subscriptions to manage their music. I don’t even have a Spotify account, I don’t even know what our page looks like, I don’t know how to engage people because I’d have to pay for that account. Why don’t you give it to us for free if you’re a band, you should have a free account. That’s something you would think was obvious a long time ago, but the fact that she has to write this article makes you think “Maybe since you’re screwing bands over so much, give them a free account so they can-“
See how much they’re being screwed over.
So how do you discover new music?
It becomes harder the older you get. Now it’s usually an opening band or a band my friends in other bands tell me about. I haven’t really discovered anything too recently. I loved it when you could illegally download albums and put them on CDs. That’s where I heard a lot of the early post-punk singles and weird records and used to like the old mp3 blogs. I’m calling them old but…
I know, it’s weird, isn’t it? Like Hype Machine would be a great source.
Oh yeah, like “here’s a weird album from the 1970s that you’ve never heard of” and just seeing the record cover was enough to know you’re going to listen to it. Now I guess people have playlists that they find stuff on? I don’t know.
The things you’re listening to and experiencing in your life then go on and influence what you create. Are there other factors or other things that have changed since Relatives In Descent giving you a different outlook, or are things similar to how they were?
It’s not like life has gotten any better. What happens right now in this stage, I’m just filtering through turns of phrase, or if something happens to me, or something interesting, I’ll just try to remember it. I won’t try to write it down, which is hard enough, but if you do remember it then it kind of gets stuck in your head, like a particular turn of phrase. When the next song comes up I’m going to fit that in or at least think about that as an idea. This is kind of the sponge period and hopefully when it’s time to come up with lyrics I will have a reservoir that I can draw on. Right now it’s nothing specific.
I know that you said that Relatives In Descent was not a concept album, although in retrospect when you look back at the lyrics that were written there was a subconscious theme running through all of the subjects that you were talking about.
Halfway through I realised it was definitely going in one direction and I’m not going to sit here and think “We need a light happy song on this album”. No we don’t, we’ve got to keep exploring this. I think that will happen again.
So you’re still looking at expressing yourself however feels naturally and then whatever comes together at the end is what it is?
Let’s say I get three ideas that I’m really chewing on, and one of those could be three different songs. A lot of the times what will happen is that a song will split. What I always do when they come to me with the music is that I always overwrite. I write way too many lyrics and then I try to fit it all in and realise that, OK, this needs some space. If I really like a lyric I’ll pop it out and see if it fits someplace else or let’s take that kernel of an idea out of this song and see if it would work in another song. I think that’s kind of where themes around this come from, they’re all kind of connected in that way. Then we figure it out, like with Relatives (In Descent) where we had those outliers. If you look at them all together, they all kind of fit the same theme even though they’re two different albums just because I was writing them all around the same time.
There’s definitely a feeling with each release that you’re increasing the number of instruments and guests, and that the sound is evolving in that sense. Is that a confidence thing or a conscious decision to change your sound, or is it just a coincidental series of events that lead to it? Also, is this something that’s going to continue?
I think, not to give you too boring an answer, but I think it’s all three. You do consciously talk about what you think the album’s going to be like before you do it. At least before Relatives (In Descent), originally my idea was I was going to try and write about more light topics, so that we wouldn’t get labelled as a completely downer band and that didn’t work out. At least that was my thought going in and Greg had some musical ideas going in. He wanted to use some strings in a very specific way and maybe have the songs fit together more. So now just talking, he wants to maybe lighten the sound a little bit and I was thinking instead of writing lighter lyrics, I’ll keep the lyrics in the same vein in a poppier song. If you’re listening to it you might think “Oh, this is a good song” and then you’d listen and think “these lyrics are dark”. Some of my favourite songs are about someone having the worst day of their life but it sounds a bit more upbeat. It’s not like the next one’s going to be a dance record by any stretch of the imagination. I think we’re going to let the air in a little bit. At least, this is the first step, I mean I’ve done interviews where I say “the next album’s going to be like this” and then by the time it’s done it’s completely different. That’s the first notion that we had when we hadn’t really done anything.
I guess it’s a headspace you put yourself into.
Yeah, you’re always hoping with the band that when the tour’s done that when people go on vacation or say “I’ve got to get away from you assholes” that then they’re excited to work again. You kind of take people’s temperature. “Are you ready to keep this going?” and I think everybody’s ready to do that, which is always good.
Are you guys quite close? I mean you obviously all come from different backgrounds, but how do you get on as a four?
I think that we get on really well, but we’re not living in each other’s lives. I’m not telling them my love problems unless it’s hilarious. We’re very close and I think that’s good because one of the earliest things that we learned is that you’re going to fight when you’re in a band but you need to figure out pretty quickly that you’re just as much to blame as somebody else. You’re both at fault and you can calm it down pretty quickly. Whereas we used to fight quite a bit and maybe get in each other’s business, now we’re all much closer in the correct sense. I mean you’re still going to get mad at somebody, “oh you really fucked that song up tonight” or something will happen but then you’ll realise “wait a minute, they’re going through the same experience as you or I”. You’re all in this together. That helps our creative process too because you feel open with this people and that I can express my creativity. I mean, I’d hope I’d be invited to their weddings. It’s a good closeness I think.
And how do you find your anxiety when performing compared to how it was in the past? I know you don’t wear your glasses on stage to obscure the faces of the audience. Your audiences are getting bigger with your increased popularity and you’re touring relentlessly, is that something that’s getting easier with time?
No. No it doesn’t. The mechanics of it, when we go on and I walk out, I can handle that a little bit better. Before I would think “well if I don’t walk out…”. I don’t have that level of panic. It used to be on the early tours I’d be outside smoking a cigarette and I’d think “If I just keep walking in that direction, I don’t have to do this”. There’d be a very big drive to just run away. Now I’m used to it and know I’ve just got to perform. The good thing about big crowds is that when your glasses are off, they’re much smaller faces and they’re further away. In a smaller venue, you can see the faces a little bit better and you don’t have to worry about disappointing them. I have seen shows where people figure out ways to engage the audience in a good way and I wish I had a little bit more of that. I feel like sometimes I personally almost sabotage myself in that respect. I think because of having stage fright, I’m not going to engage the audience, I’m just going to sing the song and that’s the battle I go through every night.
Do you find it draining?
For me it is, but that’s because I don’t think I was built to be a singer or a performer. You meet people and think “that person would be great on the stage” and I think I’m kind of the opposite. It’s just trying to figure out how to keep it interesting for myself and other people too.
I know it’s a long time ago, but I’ve struggled to find the details of how exactly you got involved with the band in the first place. Did the others see you performing somewhere or something like that?
No, I was working at a place with Greg where we were just holding the doors for people as they just went into this theatre and we’d talk about bands and how he was in bands and I said I was friends with Tyvek and I go to shows all the time. So we’d go to shows and talk about music and then I’d had notions of putting out a 7” or something and trying to write a song. I knew enough people that knew music and thought “maybe I can beg them”. From hanging out with Greg and his lot, which was basically Alex and him, I was like “they have a band, maybe I can convince them to do some songs and maybe over some beers we can come up with a song and then I can do a 7” where it’s the Joe Casey band on one side”. So it was basically just after work hanging out originally in Greg’s basement of his family’s house. That was where we first had a night of “you guys play some riffs and I’ll bark over it”. From there I was like “Oh, you know, I can get us a show opening up for Tyvek”. Very small goals.
Going back to one of your earlier points, where you said you could experiment with more because people knew you less, and had less expectations, and that now there are some songs where if people don’t hear certain songs they’ll be disappointed-
Yeah, there’s that feeling of “I really wish that people like my band” and then when they do these people start saying stuff like “meh, the new one’s not as good as the last one”. Which is a completely normal thing, I’ve had that with bands too, but when it happens to your band you’re suddenly like “wait a minute!? You don’t really like us! You’re supposed to like everything that we do!” and then I remember that’s how it goes. I don’t necessarily want super-fans. You want people who like what you’re doing.
Do you read much about yourselves then?
Sometimes I do. I try not to, but it’s one of those things where if you can take the good and the bad, then it’s fine. To know that they’re really not much different. That just because one person says you’re a genius and one person says that you’re stupid that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
And often those concepts are also a lot closer than people realise.
I also think that unless you need to do it for your mental health that cutting yourself off from knowing what people think is the wrong way to go. I like to know what people like about us or what songs they prefer. There’s a song The Chuckler and we’re not playing it tonight.
No, sorry I didn’t mean to-
That’s a perfect example! This is a tour where we’re actually starting to play it, but it depends on the night. Greg doesn’t want to do a certain guitar tone if he doesn’t feel like he can get it. So that’s when I was like “You’ve gotta bring back The Chuckler”, you know? That’s one I can tell that people like from the album. I mean, I like it too. If I hated it I’d be like “Yeah, we’re not fucking playing it” but it’s those sorts of things where I think it’s important to know exactly what it is that people like about you. Not that you have to do it, you should never be super beholden to it, especially when you do new stuff “Ah, we’ve gotta do one like The Chuckler again”.
I guess it’s fortunate in a way that four albums in and you don’t have-
The hit. No, we don’t, they’re all hits! Nah, we’ve been lucky in that way because the size of our audiences means that there’s twenty different opinions on what their favourite song is. I think that’s a good place to be, four albums in and not necessarily having one that nobody likes or one where this is the one with all the hits. The fact that the songs can all kind of tie together, is another thing. Sometimes bands come up with a new sound and then the old ones don’t really mesh with the new ones. The way that we’re developing I think that people can see a progression.
Yeah, unlike seeing someone like Beck live.
Here’s the funky rap ones, and here’s my introspective moment. I mean, you can do it and it can be an interesting show.
But I suppose you’re not as flexible with your setlists, you can’t just make it up as you go like Fugazi. Oh yeah, and I hope this isn’t too personal a question, but have you lost weight?Uh, not that I know of.
I think it’s the haircut and also, this is a bigger hat than I usually wear, and the “D” on it is bigger. These are newer glasses too, slightly bigger frames. I always make sure I get a suit that’s slightly bigger. Important things.
I should take notes! I was just surprised because I thought with the touring lifestyle you’d end up eating a lot of unhealthier food.
Well I do eat better when I’m on tour in Europe than I ever do at home. Here you get a nice meal, and at home you’re eating garbage.
How do you find you get perceived as an American abroad? Does it ever cause problems for you in certain countries or situations?
As far as being an American band goes, as long as you’re not loud when you’re walking around. I feel really bad that I don’t speak any foreign languages.
I’m British and have the same thing.
We’re learning that here everyone speaks English and that’s ok but you don’t want to walk around “Hey! Yeah! I’ll have a beer” you end up timidly “Hey, can I have a beer?” and then they speak to you in English and it’s ok. As long as you’re not an asshole, that helps.
Does it give you a different perspective? You’re very outspoken on American and Michigan politics, but what about the rest of the world when you’re spending so much time out of the country?
I think that everyone should travel because I think it broadens the mind and makes you respect other people and other identities more but it does put you in a weird spot because you do feel a little bit of sentiment for home. If somebody’s like “America sucks!” you’re kind of like “well, it doesn’t completely suck!”. You get a little pang. At home it’s trashy, but it’s my trash.
Yeah, I’m never patriotic until someone else starts bad mouthing my home country. I’m more than happy to apologise for Brexit.
There are all these reasons why the UK is screwed up but if somebody else says it it’s like “I can make fun of my mother, but you can’t make fun of my mother!”.